The Opposite of Crying “Wolf” (sermon; 130407)

otter-wolfThe Opposite of Crying ‘Wolf’
Service celebrated at the First Unitarian Church of Hobart, Indiana, on 07 April 2013
Rev. Chip Roush

This is a poem about an otter, written by Mary Oliver, who was born in Cleveland, in 1935:


“I have not really, not yet, talked with otter

about his life.


He has so many teeth, he has trouble

with vowels.

Wherefore our understanding

is all body expression —


he swims like the sleekest fish,

he dives and exhales and lifts a trail of bubbles.

Little by little he trusts my eyes

and my curious body sitting on the shore.


Sometimes he comes close.

I admire his whiskers

and his dark fur which I would rather die than wear.


He has no words, still what he tells about his life

is clear.

He does not own a computer.

He imagines the river will last forever.

He does not envy the dry house I live in.

He does not wonder who or what it is that I worship.

He wonders, morning after morning, that the river

is so cold and fresh and alive, and still

I don’t jump in.”


Whether you wear fur, or not; whether you own a computer, or not; whoever or whatever you worship—or do not; we are glad you are here.

If you are grieving this morning, reeling from a recent loss, or hobbled with the ache of an ancient one, we welcome you in, and wish you peace.

If you are angry or anxious, or numb from the demands of life—or if you are happy this morning—we acknowledge your human experience. You are welcome in this house. This morning, and every morning, may we be aware of how fresh and alive the world is, and may we indeed jump in and take part.

So may we be.



FIRST READING                  

Susan Browne was born on this day, in 1952, in Long Beach, California.

I’m at a day-long meditation retreat, eight hours of watching my mind with my mind, and I already fell asleep twice and nearly fell out of my chair, and it’s not even noon yet.


In the morning session, I learned to count my thoughts, ten in on minute, and the longest was to leave and go to San Anselmo and shop, then find an outdoor cafe and order a glass


of Sancerre, smoked trout with roasted potatoes and baby carrots and a bowl of gazpacho. But I stayed and learned to name my thoughts, so far they are: wanting, wanting, wanting,


wanting, wanting, wanting, wanting, wanting, judgment, sadness. Don’t identify with your thoughts, the teacher says, you are not your personality, not your ego-identification,


then he bangs the gong for lunch. Whoever, whatever I am is given instruction in the walking meditation and the eating meditation and walks outside with the other


meditators, and we wobble across the lake like The Night of the

Living Dead. I meditate slowly, falling over a few times because I kept my foot in the air too long,

towards a bench, sit slowly down, and slowly eat my sandwich, noticing the bread, (sourdough), noticing the taste, (tuna, sourdough), noticing the smell, (sourdough, tuna),


thanking the sourdough, the tuna, the ocean, the boat, the fisherman, the field, the grain, the farmer, the Saran Wrap that kept this food fresh for this body made of food and desire


and the hope of getting through the rest of this day without dying of boredom. Sun then cloud then sun. I notice a maple leaf on my sandwich. It seems awfully large.


Slowly brushing it away, I feel so sad I can hardly stand it, so I name my thoughts; they are: sadness about my mother, judgment about my father, wanting the child I never had.


I notice I’ve been chasing the same thoughts like dogs around the same park most of my life, notice the leaf tumbling gold to the grass. The gong sounds, and back in the hall.


I decide to try lying down meditation, and let myself sleep. The Buddha in my dream is me, surrounded by dogs wagging their tails, licking my hands. I wake up


for the forgiveness meditation, the teacher saying, never put anyone out of your heart, and the heart opens and knows it won’t last and will have to open again and again,


chasing those dogs around and around in the sun then cloud then sun.




Galway Kinnell was born in 1927, in Providence, Rhode Island. This is the 7th and final stanza from his poem,  “Another Night in the Ruins”


How many nights must it take

one such as me to learn

that we aren’t, after all, made

from that bird that flies out of its ashes,

that for us

as we go up in flames, our one work


to open ourselves, to be

the flames?




How many of you think that church should be more like a secret society, with life-changing wisdom available to a select few? How many think that church should be more like a gay bar? How many think that church is like  the Chicago Bulls’ guard, Derrick Rose? I’ll explain all of those references, but let me begin with a story.


Once upon a time, there was a beautiful land called Fennario. And in this beautiful land,

there was a woman named Alice. Alice was strong, and kind, and she had very good eyesight. Alice liked living in Fennario. She liked her neighbors, who were mostly good, honest, hardworking and generous people. She liked the city she lived in, which was the biggest in all Fennario.


What Alice did not like was a subtle feeling that something was wrong. She could not put her finger on it, but the people of Fennario were not as happy as they had been. Prices had gone up and the newspapers were full of bad news. There were fewer parades and people started locking their doors—even when they were home!—and they were not picnicking as often.


Alice was thinking about all those ominous signs and symptoms as she walked home from work one day. She was so preoccupied that she almost missed the giant wolf down the alley.


Wait! What?  Alice shook her head, and looked down the alley again—and sure enough, there was no wolf. Alice was puzzled, because her eyes had never been wrong before, but she continued walking home and soon forgot about the wolf.


…Except, she saw it again, the following week. Well, maybe not the *same* wolf, but a wolf, and a big one, getting into the elevator at the bank. Alice actually made an appointment with an ophthalmologist, after that incident.


The appointment was for two weeks later, and by the time she saw the doctor, she had begun to see the wolf almost daily. Alice’s eyes checked out fine; and no, the doctor had not seen any wolves lately. Nor had Alice’s closest coworker, nor her neighbor across the street. The man in the house on the corner said he had seen a wolf once, but it was a long time ago, in the country next to Fennario.


Alice’s work began to suffer, so she took a few days of vacation. She had always wanted to see the Big Muddy River, so she packed up her tent and her camping gear, and Alice headed outside the city. She loved the river, and she loved hiking in the woods around the river. In fact, she loved hiking so much that she didn’t realize how long she’d been out until the sun began to go down.


Alice was trying to hurry back to her campsite when she heard a strange noise. Half afraid that she would come across another mysterious wolf, she still followed the sounds and found a cabin in the woods.


She stayed hidden in the undergrowth around the trees and watched as several people walked or rode bicycles up to the cabin, and entered. She was curious, but she was also afraid she was trespassing, so she wasn’t sure what to do. She had just decided to head back to her camp when she heard somebody shout “welcome to the ‘we see them too’ club!” Alice watched as two people were welcomed into the cabin, and when she thought she heard the word “wolf,” she could no longer contain her curiosity. She walked right up to the cabin and knocked.


Inside the cabin was a meeting of dozens of people who also saw the wolves. From listening to people speak, they all knew that the wolves were real; and they all knew that the wolves were the *cause* of Fennario feeling different.


Alice felt such relief! She had not been seeing things! She had been interpreting events correctly. From then on, Alice visited the “We See Them Too” Club at least once or twice per month. She made quite a few friends in the club.


And she watched as, occasionally, other new people would stumble across it. Often, they would become regulars, just as she had. Sometimes, it seemed that just knowing they were right was enough for some people.  Alice and a few other Club members began to socialize together in the city. They went to baseball games together, and to restaurants. They did all the things they had done before, but the activities felt more fun because they were doing them with other people from the Club. They even had a secret gesture when one of them saw a wolf, to point it out to the others.



We will return to Alice in Fennario in a little while, but first I want to tell you another story. This time, it is a true story.


A little over twenty years ago, I moved to Chicago for a job. I enjoyed my work; I liked the city; I even liked some of my coworkers—and I was also depressed. Even though I was relatively healthy, and financially comfortable, I could not stop thinking about pollution and war and intolerance and the war on women and the way our politicians seemed broken. Living two states away from my family, I was very lonely. I masked my feelings by working too much, but that did not really help.


Part of my being depressed was that I did not feel like I had any purpose. On the weekends, I would read Mother Earth News or the Utne Reader. During work hours, I would get on the internet and devour various liberal news magazines. These sometimes made me feel better, because at least *some* people in the world were fighting the good fight. They could also make me feel worse, because while others were doing good work, I was not doing any of it.


Like the poet in our first reading, if I would have named my thoughts, they would have been “wanting…wanting…wanting…judgment…I am so sad I can hardly stand it.”


I did not yet know about Unitarian Universalism. I knew that I did not like any of the churches or faith traditions that I had tried, growing up.


I started doing some volunteering, but they were always one-time events. I arrived home each time feeling better  about myself and my world, but it wore off fairly quickly, and I did not make any lasting connections.


I knew I needed to find a real community. After a great deal of searching, over *several* years, I finally found the First UU Church of Columbus, Ohio, and my life became much better. I joined a men’s group, and helped to start a Young Adult Group. I volunteered to teach Sunday School. I found real friends and I began to feel real meaning in my life again.


So, my story had a happy ending. Alice’s story, on the other hand, back in Fennario, may *not* have a happy ending…


Alice really appreciated the “We See Them Too” Club. She attended regularly, and she was even elected to be Club President for a while. But after several years, she felt like it was less satisfying, somehow.


She still enjoyed the friendships she’d made, but it seemed like the club experienced a lot of churn. People would find the place, and be elated, just as she had been. But most of the people did not stay. A few would, but most attended less and less often, and eventually just drifted away…


Alice tried to pump up the energy. She wondered if just waiting there, in their cabin, was sapping their energy, so she suggested moving to the city. It did invigorate the club, during several months of debate, but they ultimately decided it was too much trouble, so they voted to stay where they were.


Alice and a few other members tried to recruit some younger, more energetic members. But their first efforts were clumsy—a sign at her job “have you seen a wolf?” only resulted in her coworkers making fun of her. Other efforts did succeed in welcoming three or four or even a dozen new members, but most of those members followed the same trajectory: one or a few would end up as long-term members, while the others faded from view.


Alice grew frustrated with the whole endeavor. The last straw came when she saw a really, really, *huge* wolf right outside the grocery store where she usually shopped. She had become more or less familiar with glimpses of wolves around the city. Having spied them for years, she almost took them for granted. But this one—this was bigger than any wolf she had ever seen. It was so monstrous, that she stopped in her tracks, and dropped her purse, right in the parking lot.


A woman near her—a stranger, who had been heading *into* the store—also saw the giant wolf. And she and Alice saw each other. Alice *almost* spoke. She almost said, “yes, I see it, too. In fact, there are many of us who see these strange wolves. We sometimes meet together; I can give you directions, if you’d like.” She almost said that.


But then she was overcome with this odd emotion. It was a combination of feelings: that she was special, because she could see the wolf; but also that she was some kind of *weirdo*  because she could see the wolf. This difficult combination of pride and shame stopped her tongue from working. Alice broke eye contact with the stranger, grabbed her purse, and walked quickly to her car.


How many of you wish that Alice had spoken to the stranger? How many sympathize with her, for just walking away? How many think Alice should have gone to a gay bar?


Why do I keep talking about gay bars? Okay, we’ll get back to Alice eventually, and here is another story from my past.


Nowadays, it can be quite dangerous to be known as a homosexual, or transgendered person. A week does not go by that we don’t hear about another person beaten or killed because of their sexuality or gender identity. As dangerous as it is today, it was much worse a generation ago.


Back in the 80s and early 90s I had several friends who were gay. I also worked with a theater troupe—some of whom were gay, and some of whom just liked to dance. So we would often end up at a gay bar.


Some of these bars were widely known as gay bars. Some were more “underground.” One of the best had no marquee,  no lights flashing—not even a window to see the folks inside. There was just a plain door, and if you didn’t know better, you could walk right by, and never suspect a thing.


But it was virtually always busy. Anytime I was there, there were *lots* of gay men, and a few lesbians, and undoubtedly a few bisexuals, and some straight allies, filling up the dance floor.


How did all those dancers know how to find the place? They told each other. They knew  that this bar was a great place to go; and they knew that some of their  human cousins *needed* a place like that, needed friends like that; so anybody who knew about it was willing and eager—in fact, delighted—to share that good news.        



You know how ancient Greeks said “good news”? Evangelion. “Evangelion” is the root word for “gospel,” and it gives us the word “evangelist.”


Now, many of us just pictured a snake-oil salesman, talking gullible people out of their life savings on television immediately after committing all kinds of sins, off-camera. Others of us may have envisioned a person coming to your door, or cornering you in the mall, with a one-size-fits-all theology who won’t take no for an answer. It’s difficult to be an evangelist in this country, because we’ve seen so many unsavory ones.


And yet, like the dancers in the gay bar, we have really good news for some of our human cousins. We could truly help them to make their lives better, if we share with them *our* evangelion.          


Unlike the snake-oil type of evangelists, we are not selling a specific map of the one right way to reach a fantastic treasure. We are not *selling* anything. We are offering to be good traveling companions.


We are not selling a set of rules. We are offering a set of actions. Anybody who finds our path a worthy one is welcome to join us, and we will cry with them, sing with them, listen to them and share our food with them, as we journey together.



We are not offering mere community. Televangelists offer nothing  if not a sense of  “community.” The Hitler Youth  were a remarkably close-knit “community.” What we are offering is rich, complex, supportive and challenging community.


We do not wonder who or what it is that you worship. We do not care if you worship anything at all. We do care about what you love, and what you fear. We care about your dreams and desires. We care about your suffering, and your sorrow; and we care whether, after all of that, you are still willing to open your heart, again and again.


If *that* is the path you want to walk, then we are willing and eager—delighted, even—to journey with you. We will support and challenge you and we ask that you support and challenge us.


And that finally gets us to how we are like the Chicago Bulls player, Derrick Rose. Some of us may recall that Rose was injured in the basketball playoffs, almost a year ago. He had surgery on his left knee, ten months ago, and he has had *lots* of good physical therapy. Team doctors have cleared him to play, but Rose insists that his knee is still not right, and he does not want to return until he can contribute like he used to.


Few of us in this room are basketball superstars, with scarred-up knees and millions of fans urging us to play again. Most of us in this room *do* have emotional scars. Some of us have recovered sufficiently, and are out there again, loving and living and assisting others. Some of us are still working with our traumas, hoping someday to feel different, and in the meantime, still working to heal.


We must all take care of ourselves first; we must heal ourselves sufficiently, and *then* reach out to others. But how healed do we have to be, before we feel comfortable putting ourselves out there, again? We need good friends to support us, and to lovingly challenge us, to speed us along on the road to full recovery.


It takes a long time to for a knee to fully heal, after surgery. It can take even longer to recover from our emotional and spiritual wounds. The healing process is different in every case. It always takes exactly as long as it takes.


And it is also the case that “our one work is to open ourselves, to *be* the flames.”


Our teammates, our human cousins across the globe, need us. As soon as we do feel able, there is much work to be done.



After seeing that gigantic wolf, and failing to speak to the woman in the parking lot, Alice marched into the “We See Them Too” Club and demanded  that the clubmembers hold her and themselves to a higher standard. There were people all over Fennario who needed their help.


The Club responded. They started being more welcoming to the people who showed up at the cabin. No longer were people left to their own devices. Everyone did their best to make newcomers feel welcome, and if they did not share common interests with a newcomer, then they helped that person connect with other members with whom they did have something in common.


Then they went into the city, looking for wolves and reaching out to other people who saw them. They visited other towns, and made connections with similar clubs in those towns.


And then something amazing happened. Possibly because the people watching were more organized, there began to be fewer wolf sightings. And with fewer wolves around, Fennario began to feel like a happier place again. There were more picnics, and parades, and people smiled at each other again. And they all lived with constantly re-opening hearts, ever after.

So may we be.




The otter in Mary Oliver’s poem “wonders… that the river is so…fresh and alive, [yet] still [we] don’t jump in.” Sometime this afternoon, or this week or this month, we will glimpse something fresh and alive. Let us truly engage it, without fear or ego; and if it feels right, let us indeed jump in.

So may we be.

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